How NASA engineers mourn the death of a beloved spacecraft
LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE — They called it a wake, but the loved one they had come to mourn wasn’t a person.
It was the Cassini spacecraft, the robotic explorer that had spent the last 13 years unlocking the mysteries of Saturn, its rings and its many moons.
Soon after Cassini vaporized like a shooting star in the Saturnian sky, about 175 members of the mission’s engineering team gathered in an airy banquet room at the La Canada Flintridge Country Club to eulogize their spacecraft.
There were toasts and singing. But there were some misty eyes as well.
“You have this great pride in all you were able to accomplish,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it’s still an emotional loss.”
When it comes to spacecraft, even scientists get sentimental.
These flying hunks of metal call their caretakers in the middle of the night, infuriate them with their quirks and dazzle them with amazing discoveries about the universe.
So is it any wonder that when their time has passed, their human handlers will feel a sense of loss?
Cassini’s instruments were working just fine at the time of its demise; the problem was that it was running out of fuel. Mission planners worried that if they didn’t crash the orbiter into the ringed planet, it might collide with one of Saturn’s ice moons and contaminate it. That would complicate future efforts to search for signs of life there.
The team had seven years to prepare for the spacecraft’s end on Sept. 15. But that didn’t make it easy to say goodbye.
Some of the assembled mourners had been with the mission since before it blasted into space in 1997.
The banquet room was booked for five hours. It wasn’t enough.
When a spacecraft dies, it’s not just the exploration that comes to an end. It’s also the end of an intense collaboration here on Earth.
“People put so much of their heart and effort into what we used to call the care and feeding of the spacecraft,” said Eilene Theilig, a planetary geologist who worked as the project manager for the Galileo mission to Jupiter at JPL and is now an ordained minister in Fort Worth, Texas. “It is such a team effort, and when it goes away, you are dealing not only with the loss of the spacecraft, but also the loss of the team.”
Nicolas Altobelli, a scientist at the European Space Agency, bid farewell to two spacecraft in a 12-month period.
In addition to serving as the ESA’s principal scientist for Cassini, he worked on the agency’s Rosetta mission to the comet known as 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After a dozen years in space, Rosetta crash-landed on the comet’s austere surface in September 2016.
Working on a flagship space mission is like being on a ship that has been sent to explore a new world, he said.
“Everyone is kind of unified by this one object, and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “But when it’s over, you realize that it’s not the ship disappearing that hurts the most, it’s the dismantling of the crew.”
Sometimes the sense of loss begins even before the mission ends.
Todd Barber, Cassini’s lead propulsion engineer, found himself unexpectedly overcome by emotion during Cassini’s last weeks. He had just completed a routine report detailing how much propellant was probably left in the spacecraft’s thrusters.